Instead of proper uniforms, Sue Enquist and the rest of the softball players wore the men’s track team’s practice shirts. The women played their games on the intramural field ““ home plate was the corner between Drake Stadium and the Acosta Center.
It was 1975, and UCLA’s women’s softball team was hovering just above club status.
“We got some good crowds, because everybody had to take a break heading up the hill,” Enquist said.
But within the athletics department, there was a general feeling that circumstances were about to change, Enquist said. In 1972, Congress had passed Title IX, a law that required universities to work toward gender equality in their sports programs, among others. Although the women’s teams were at the time housed under the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, a heated debate was under way over whether to join the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Some women argued the merger between the AIAW and the NCAA was a necessary step toward equality; others worried their interests would be dwarfed by those of the male athletes. Enquist said the deciding voice was Judith Holland, who became UCLA’s women’s athletic director in 1974 and set out to attract female athletes with scholarships and top-tier coaches.
After encountering gender discrimination on the softball and baseball teams at San Clemente High School, Enquist faced continued discrepancies in terms of funding and equipment at UCLA. But she said the men’s teams at the university felt only pride and respect for their female counterparts during a time of noticeable progress for Enquist and her team.
“Every day was Christmas,” she said. “Today we’re getting uniforms. Then in a month, we’ve got a per diem for you.”
Curtis Wilson was a UCLA athlete around the same time, competing for the men’s diving team in 1976 and 1977 after transferring from the University of Michigan. He remembered having only positive interactions with the women at that time, especially at Michigan, where the teams often practiced together.
At that point, universities were still following the mandates of Title IX by promoting women’s athletics, Wilson said. But over the years, he said, schools more and more often chose to cut men’s programs instead to level the playing field.
“I wish it was written in a way that it couldn’t have affected men’s athletics, but it wasn’t,” Wilson said. “How the powers that be interpreted it is that it is more economical to cut men’s programs than to add women’s programs.”
Peter Vidmar came to UCLA in 1979, competing for men’s gymnastics, though he said it often seemed like the male and female gymnasts were all on the same team. Aside from the women’s athletic facilities being housed in a temporary building, he didn’t remember noticeable discrepancies in terms of funding or equipment.
A year after graduating, Vidmar was one of three Bruins on the gold medal-winning 1984 Olympic team. The UCLA men’s gymnastics team won the NCAA championship that same year, and again in 1987.
But in August of 1993, facing serious budget cuts, the university announced plans to cut the men’s and women’s gymnastics teams along with the men’s swimming and diving teams.
Although Title IX was not included in the stated rationale for eliminating any of the programs, the women’s team threatened legal action on the basis of the gender equality law.
By November, UCLA announced a four-tier plan to enhance opportunities for female athletes, which included reinstating the women’s gymnastics team.
Collegiate men’s gymnastics, meanwhile, was steadily dwindling. By 1996, there were 32 varsity teams left in the country, down from 234 in 1969. Both Vidmar and Wilson said the loss of UCLA’s program, consistently one of the best in the country, opened the door wider for other universities to follow suit. Each cut leaves less competition for the remaining teams, they said, making it harder to justify their existence in the face of economic issues.
There are now 18 NCAA men’s gymnastics teams in the United States ““ Stanford and UC Berkeley alone are left competing in California. Berkeley’s program recently found itself in the same situation UCLA’s did in ’93, but the team raised enough money to remain intact.
Vidmar himself advocated saving the program, and he said USA Gymnastics, the sport’s official governing body, made a considerable donation.
Wilson was not so lucky ““ he coached the men’s diving team at UC Irvine until 2009, when a relatively new athletic director cut the program eight weeks before fall term.
Enquist, who now works in development and special projects for UCLA Athletics, said the elimination of men’s teams has been painful for female athletes as well, as many benefit from coed practices.
Wilson said he thinks many universities feel they have their hands tied by Title IX. Although teams are usually cut to address budget issues, Wilson wondered whether, without the law, administrators might be more inclined to look for solutions that do not involve eliminating entire programs, such as cutting small amounts to all programs. The damage done to men’s sports is an ugly side effect of a law meant to bring positive change for female athletes, he said.
“It seems like people are always trying to find a way to work around the intent,” Wilson said.
“And the intent is beautiful.”